24 Snowbound Campers Are Airlifted Out


Cold and hungry but happy to be alive, 24 Michigan campers were rescued by helicopter Tuesday from the North Carolina mountains after surviving the weekend's paralyzing blizzard.

But even as family members rejoiced at news of their rescue, the search continued for dozens of other stranded campers and for 32 British and Chinese crewmen lost at sea after a freighter sank off the coast of Nova Scotia. Another 16 people were missing off the coast of Florida.

By Tuesday, the so-called "Blizzard of '93" had claimed more than 219 lives, caused untold hardship and left behind a costly legacy in repair and cleanup costs.

The Michigan campers were the object of an arduous helicopter search and a painstaking rescue in which they were plucked one at a time from the snow-covered mountainsides in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"They were surprised that there was such a search for them," said Patrick Fitzsimmons, a spokesman for the Red Cross Shelter in Maryville, Tenn., where the campers were taken Tuesday night. "They expected rangers on horseback to come looking for them but not helicopters."

But the campers, 21 students and three teachers from the exclusive Cranbrook-Kingswood Upper School in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., were hunkered down 15 to 20 miles beyond the reach of ground rescue crews in snowdrifts that sometimes reached as high as 12 feet, said Brian Fahl, an Air National Guard platoon sergeant and medic who rescued some of the campers.

They were among a group of 119 from the school who had undergone wilderness survival training and had set out more than a week ago on an annual trek into the forest. They had all been scheduled to emerge from the woods by Tuesday, and by Monday night all but 24 had done so.

The remaining campers were located Tuesday afternoon in the Hazel Creek area near Fontana Lake in North Carolina.

One group of eight had survived the storm by constructing igloo-like shelters out of snow and sheets of plastic, said Fahl, who praised the survival skills of the instructors.

He rescued the group by descending on a hoist-line from a helicopter hovering at the tree line. He connected the campers to the line one and two at a time and they were lifted up.

Another group of 16 campers took shelter in an unused park service bunkhouse, said Lisa Rolen, a spokeswoman for the National Parks Service.

While all of those rescued Tuesday were in good condition, Fahl said he feared "a couple" of those recovered Monday might lose feet or fingers because of exposure to the extreme cold.

Teacher James Woodruff was hospitalized in serious condition with exposure injuries at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville, said nursing supervisor Penny Blake.

Five students who were part of his group also suffered from exposure and were being held overnight for observation, Blake said. Their conditions were listed as stable.

The campers said they expected snow, but nothing like what they encountered.

A team co-leader, Meghan Wealis of Bloomfield Hills, said the group knew they were in trouble Friday. She said they didn't try to walk out as scheduled Tuesday after being in the wilderness for more than a week because they knew they couldn't.

"When we saw the helicopters we started jumping up and down in the snow waving everything colored we could find," said Jennifer Makenzie, a 15-year-old sophomore. "We were elated. If there's one word I can use to describe it, it's elated."

At the suburban Detroit school, anxious parents whooped for joy when they heard the missing students and teachers had been found. "He's fine, he's fine," said Nancy Shapiro, whose 15-year-old son, Stephen, was among the last to be found and airlifted to safety in nearby Knoxville. "He's never done anything like this before. It's the first time."

Would she permit him to go on a similar trip? she was asked.

"Sure," she exclaimed. "I'd let him do it again. It's the storm of the century. Next century I won't be around."

The Michigan campers weren't alone in being put in peril by the storm.

Tennessee officials said more than 150 hikers, campers and fishermen have been rescued by helicopter from snowbound wilderness areas in the eastern part of their state and at least 50 others were being sought.

And while road clearing was progressing, approximately 1,055 storm victims remain in 33 eastern Tennessee shelters, the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency said.

Schools remained closed Tuesday in parts of 11 states: Alabama, West Virginia, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia and Massachusetts.

In Alabama more than 200,000 homes and businesses still did not have power Tuesday. More than 65,000 are without power in Georgia, mostly in mountainous rural areas that are difficult to reach, said Greg Jones, a spokesman for the Electric Cooperatives of Georgia.

The late-winter storm also took a psychological toll on millions. "Spirits are good now, considering the trauma that these people have been through," said Andy Menendez, director of homeless programs for Dade County, Fla., as he prepared to reopen a tent city shelter all but destroyed by last weekend's hurricane-force winds. "But there are psychological problems that won't surface until later."

Through the Deep South, temperatures which crept up into the 40s began to melt away the heavy snowfall that accompanied the massive low pressure system that rolled up the Eastern Seaboard Saturday. On interstate highways in Georgia and Alabama, clogged with stranded motorists and abandoned cars through Monday, traffic returned to near-normal conditions.

As a low pressure system moved in over South Florida from the Gulf of Mexico, rain, small craft advisories and warnings of gusty winds of up to 35 miles an hour were posted.

Rains Tuesday in South Florida heaped more weather woes on those left homeless by Hurricane Andrew. Last weekend's storm system caused the evacuation of 21 families, totaling 100 persons, from a tent city near Homestead. Once emptied, the winds blew several of the tents apart.

On Tuesday National Guard troops and dozens of area volunteers helped re-erect the tents, and Menendez said the families were expected to move back in today.

Harrison reported from Atlanta and Clary from Miami. Researchers Edith Stanley in Atlanta and Anna Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.

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